The stories behind the numbers

I went to a Jesuit school and college in Calcutta; I was with them from 1966 to 1979. Wonderful times, times I look back upon with joy.

By the time I was in my early teens, I’d heard the story of Pheidippides many times. The literary/historical rites of passage embedded in Jesuit education in India. Pheidippides was firmly tucked in somewhere between Ghent to Aix and O Captain My Captain.

The first modern Olympics I experienced, vicariously and from afar, was the one held in Mexico City in 1968. We had no television at home, or for that matter anywhere in India. [It would be at least a decade before small black-and-white sets invaded, carrying, of all things, I Love Lucy. Hmmm. I passed].

Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, Jim Hines, Tommie Smith (and his Black Power salute), these were the names I remember from the Olympics in 1968. [I had fledgling ambitions to become a sprinter in those days. The less said of that the better. We all choose our heroes to suit ourselves].

By 1972 I was a glutton for things Olympic, aided and abetted by our class teacher, Mr Redden (otherwise known to us as Lalmurgi). He got us to make scrapbooks about the event. I remember marvelling at the standardised icons that began to appear that year for each event.

The tragic events of the massacre at the Olympic village overshadowed everything else about those Olympics, and the scrapbook projects were soon forgotten.

Before that, while working on the scrapbook, I was intrigued by how the Marathon was going to be run there. Apparently they’d designed the course to resemble that year’s Olympic mascot, Waldi.


That caught my eye. Odd and interesting. But not as odd and interesting as the distance the athletes were meant to run. 26 miles 385 yards. 385 yards. Really? That kind of false precision bugged me, even as a teenager. So we were asked to believe that someone had measured the precise distance run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens some 2500 years ago and set it down to 26 miles and 385 yards. Pull the other one.

It continued to bug me. Therein lies a tale. Turns out that he wasn’t called Pheidippides, but might have been called Thersippus or Eukles, according to Wikipedia. [If you enjoy using Wikipedia please donate to them here]. Turns out that the non-Pheidippides person never ran from Marathon to Athens around the battle of Marathon, but may have been confused with a Phillipides who may have done that run — but not during the battle.

Trivia contests used to ask about the origins of the 385 yards, and the accepted answer was that the modern marathon used to be 26 miles, until the 1908 Olympics. That year, the marathon started at Windsor Castle (a stone’s throw from where I write this now) and ended at White City Stadium. [That marathon route remains popular with people living near Windsor Castle: they get into their cars and prepare to join athletic “battle” as they shop at Westfield, standing on the ruins of White City Stadium.]

Legend had it that the route designers made a classic mistake, and that the additional 385 yards were added very late on, to ensure that the race ended in front of the Royal Box. A case of droit du roi?

Turns out that isn’t quite true either. Apparently modern marathons used to be around 40km, give or take variations imposed by the route chosen, to try and model the distance between Marathon and Athens. The IAAF only standardised the distance in May 1921, and happened to use the exact distance of the 1908 London Olympics, 42.195km … or 26 miles 385 yards.

26 miles and 385 yards. Just a number. But with so many stories.

This week, I had the opportunity to delve into another number-story. During the India v England Fifth Test in Chennai, I noticed that the first five wickets to fall during the England 1st innings were all “caught”. So I went down one of my usual rabbit holes and meandered about, reading about concentrations and dispersions in ways to get out in a single innings. I’d grown up believing that there were only ten ways for a batsman to be given out while playing cricket.    The first five are easy and common: bowled, caught, leg before wicket, stumped, run out. The next five are harder and rarer: hit wicket, handled the ball, hit the ball twice, obstructing the field and timed out.

Turns out I was wrong. There is an eleventh. Retired out. Law 2.9(b). When we played cricket in school, “retired” used to mean “retired hurt” and was treated as a “not out”. The runs scored formed part of the batsman’s average, but the innings was considered complete but not out. That changed in 2001; I remember the match but missed the significance. Two Sri Lankan batsman, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, both “retired out” in a Test match against Bangladesh. That is, they walked off the pitch without being injured, without formal leave to depart from the field of play. Which meant that Law 2.9 (b) came into effect for the first time, rather than the usual 2.9(a).

Or so I thought.

Not true. It looks like Law 2.9(b) had been invoked, albeit very briefly, during the 5th Test between West Indies and India in April-May 1983. Gordon Greenidge, batting on 154, left the field at close of play on 30th April, and did not return on Sunday 1st May. He had not been injured, which meant that, technically, he could be considered “retired out”.

He hadn’t returned for a tragic reason. His young daughter Ria had been taken very ill with a kidney infection, and he’d gone to be with her. She died a few days later.

It is not clear what the scorers originally put down against his name; the scarce evidence suggests he may have been recorded as “retired hurt”. What is clear is that as a mark of respect, given the tragic circumstances, what finally went down on the scorecard was “retired not out”. According to ESPNCricinfo that’s the only known occurrence of that term on a Test scorecard.

The stories behind the numbers.

We live in times when terms like “post-truth” and “truthiness” are bandied about without a thought. That’s when the stories behind the numbers matter. Context matters. The provenance of the context matters.

So I’m going to be spending time over the Christmas break reading people like John Allen Paulos again, particularly his books Innumeracy and Beyond Numeracy. Similarly, I’m going to be retracing my steps around the works of Howard Rheingold on Crap Detection.

More to follow.

One thought on “The stories behind the numbers”

  1. JP, well I have to confess I wasn’t aware that there was the eleventh category of being given out i.e. ‘retired out’ in tests. I note that Mahele and Marvan chose to leave the pitch “to allow teammates to feast on a seriously inept Bangladesh bowling attack”! Of course this happens regularly in warm up games to allow other players to get in some batting practice but I hadn’t heard this had happened in a Test.

    It’s a same that on StatsGuru on ESPN Cricinfo that there isn’t a separate drop down search option for Gordon Greenwich’s unique “retired not out”, a touching story. Thanks for sharing :)

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